Tuesday, February 16, 2010


Mostly, visitors to Antarctica experience the sounds and sights and sensations of Antarctica from small and large ships, and don’t set foot in the region. You couldn’t see as much otherwise. You’d compromise what you hope to observe if everyone set upon the land.

But there are still opportunities to do what you instinctively hanker to do – to stand where the explorers did – and to talk to the researchers who now work there – to get up close and personal with the people and frozen white lands they are studying.

We had a special opportunity to visit the Chilean Frei research base on King George Island where there was an air strip for landing, provided you could get there through the weather.

Holly and I and about 48 other soul mates wanted to reach the frozen land for similar reasons – and this was the way we could do that – the experience of a lifetime.

The problem was that, in order to get there, the weather has to be just right. And you don’t know how it’s going to be until you get there.

The cloud cover and fickle weather system can prevent any landing and this is in large part because the flying is VFR, visual flight rules, meaning you fly where and when you can see.

It’s treacherous enough that the flight charts for the approach to the King George airport warn to watch out for “ice bergs on approach.” Of course, it makes sense. You never know where a berg is going to wind up in the winds that wend their way through the island channels.

We assembled on the ship at about 6:45 am to take a tender from the ship to land, a bus to the airport and a small jet plane to King George Island.

We had been advised to wear 4 pairs of socks, thermal underwear, sweatpants, ski pants, 4 shirts, a parka, two pairs of gloves, ski headband, sunglasses and ski goggles. We all took this instruction to heart.

Our self-selected group of adventurers wanted to join the 65,000 folk who have ever stood in the Antarctic region.

It’s an exclusive club and, in a way, it is the saving grace for this icy desert.

Anyone who had ordinary footgear was encouraged to pull on special boots over their shoes for protection from the icy wetness they’d find if we could set down in Antarctica.

When our flight was close to the island we were above the clouds and still didn’t know whether we would get to land.

But we put on all the layers of clothing and warmth, we’d left off until the last possible moment – partly for fear of jinxing the mission but also because we didn’t want to cook in these clothes on the flight to King George.

Several recent flights had turned back at this point because the pilots couldn’t see anything.

Our pilot dropped down through the clouds, and the misty grayness was all you could see out the windows.

But then we saw the veils pass and thin, and then there was visibility - a cloudy mist permitting a view of the black white capped waters below, floating bergs, a dark gray sky and the sloping land ahead with prominent black rock outlining what was King George Island.

We dropped out of the sky at about 500 feet above the water and no bergs obstructed or endangered our approach.

We were later told by several pilots that our altitude was about the minimum we could have for a safe approach; one thought it was a risky height.

There were three pilots in the cockpit and two of them had less than the 2,000 flight hours required, but they had a third pilot who did have the hours; the problem was that the third pilot was 69 and too old, by law, to fly himself.

No matter. Our pilots did real well.

When we landed on the gravel airport, the pilot had to use care not to use his engines in such a way as to suck the gravel from the landing strip into his engines.

At a full stop, the crew and passengers drew a deep breath, and let out a cheer, clapped, and then quickly unbuckled, pulled on gloves and hats, grabbed packs and water bottles and headed to the gang plank.

It was a breath of cold moist air, in a light snow, and gusts of wind that greeted us as we walked down the metal stairs to set foot on a black gray muddy surface.

We could see the nearby hangar, and the vintage aircraft inside.

There was a helicopter about 100 feet away.

The vista that surrounded us was ice and snow covered cliffs and in the slight valley nearby a partly frozen lake that was the source of water for Chilean and Russian research stations that adjoined one another by the bay ahead of us.

We gathered at a totem that had sign posts to various points of interest around the globe, running up a 100 feet or so, and this told you how far you were from home.

Betsy Pincheira, a wildlife veterinarian, who had spent 26 years visiting and living in Antarctica, introduced us to Alejo who would be helping us explore the base and a nearby island. Alejo had been to the South pole repeatedly, and he looked like you’d imagine an explorer should. He was hatless and relaxed, tanned, and his face wore a rugged reassuring mask, that said guy could set you straight and keep you safe; of course, he didn’t say much, not even when he helped us into the Zodiacs later.

Betsy explained that about 10% of the area was clear of ice and snow so that the base could do its work, at least during the summer.

But during the winter the snow could be 9 feet and that’s why there were bamboo poles attached to the water lines from the lake and pipes containing the electric lines that ran from the diesel generators to multi-colored buildings, variously designated as hospital, bank, post office, souvenir shop, base station, dwellings and more.

The exploitation of Antarctica, the kind that would destroy what attracts us to its wildness, is in a state of suspended animation, because of the Antarctic Treaty that holds territorial claims on hold, and prohibits mining minerals, nuclear testing, and, more positively, encourages joint research and cooperation and ecological conservation and sustainability.

Nor is this a recent history. During the cold war, when nations couldn’t talk, Russian and American teams in Antarctica were cooperating. So there’s an ethos here that doesn’t exist elsewhere.

Don’t get me wrong. This place and what they are doing with it is is not innocent in the sence of na├»ve or inexperienced. This collective of researchers and adventurers and governmental representatives have been at this too long to be simple or gullible.

They are all sensitive to the fact that perhaps what now exists is the calm before the storm when nation states will awaken, like from a Rip Van Winkle sleep, to their ordinary and unnatural condition of fierce competition, then elbow past each other, maybe war against each other (as in the Falklands), to stake claims and extract the treasure in mineral and wildlife from this last frontier on earth.

Sadly, we all worry that they will do this even at the risk of destroying what has been a unique way of life since about 1959 when the Antarctic Treaty was signed.

But in the here and now, what is going on in Antarctica is special.

It is cooperative across barriers of geography, culture, language, religion and understanding.

It is a hopeful conservation minded way that bears being repeating elsewhere in the world, other than at the frozen underside of our planet.

We walked to the home base, about a mile walk, and saw a blue catholic church atop a nearby hill in the Chilean section and it was made entirely out of metal cargo containers.

Across the shallow valley on a nearby hill was a Russian Orthodox Church designed in Russia with interconnecting parts that are held together by the gravity and design of its components.

I spoke with the priest at the Church. Our overlap was what English he understood. He’d only been there a few days to make this mission. Inside the church there were the most beautiful iconic paintings and decorations. Plainly he was excited to be on King George Island and he interrupted our conversation to ring the afternoon bells. He closed the doors to the church and all the windows save one. It was from this window the four bells sounded, and then he played a gorgeous symphony that echoed across the Russian base and could be heard in the Chilean section as well.

We posted cards, at $2 a stamp, from King George’s Island, and bought a neck warmer from the souvenir shop (PX).

At the base station, we studied petrified wood found on the island suggesting that this island was an extension of the Andes, once connected to South America, for, why else, would there be trees here – or so the Scotian hypothesis goes.

We then made it to the Zodiacs to travel to nearby Ardley Island and to visit the Gentoo penguins. Holly and I suited up in life jackets and got in this rubbery craft with an outboard motor. We had been encouraged not to stand in the boat as we would not want to make the vessel collapse into the freezing water. They got that right.

We motored out into the waters and past ice bergs and returning researchers who had been diving to observe underwater specimens. We were so close to one ice berg that the blue was pulsing incandescent. Not a sight easily duplicated in a digital photo or on film.

We set upon the land by sliding over the rubbery hide of the Zodiac onto the beach at Ardley Island where thousands of penguins lives.

Our appearance, though few, at about 20, prompted Skua birds to try to attack the penguin young. Betsy said these birds were opportunists.

Anything you do affects what you are observing and can dramatically harm the beauty you seek to enjoy.

The common vernacular now embraces the basic notion of Chaos Theory (or Complexity), the theory that small changes of initial conditions can have dramatic mega-effects. Some call it the butterfly effect, how the sweep of a butterfly’s wings can cause a tsunami somewhere else in the world.

Accordingly, there are strict constraints on how many may visit these special areas. Dr. Bernard Stonehouse had the notion that they should investigate the effect people had on penguins by measuring the penguins’ heart rate when exposed to people in certain numbers, and certain proximity and at certain sound levels. The results were that 20 people at a certain distance present no danger to the penguins.

Based on this research, we sat down, no longer loomed over the penguins, removing what was intimidating about our presence, and the penguins came right up to several of our cohort.

Also on land, there was a juvenile elephant seal weighing hundreds of pounds. It made some noise that we were disturbing its sleep, made a slightly intimidating effort, and then decided we weren’t worth his energy, and buried his head in the kelp and sand.

When we were leaving the island, the ropes that tied our Zodiac to shore were covered in Kelp and Krill (tiny little shrimp-like creatures).

It is these aspects of the Antarctica that form the building blocks of life in the Antarctic. One researcher told me that visitors are only interested in the charismatic mega-flora, and they miss the significance of how interconnected is the natural fabric of Antarctica in its region and with the rest of the world.

Water is another good example of what’s essential. Despite all the ice, fresh water is a rare commodity.

As I’ve said, Wildlife Vet Betsy has spent 26 years visiting and living in Antarctica. She said that the fresh water for a cabin her family maintained for years came from melting ice from the glacier, but eight years ago, the glacier began to shrink as the temperatures dropped from global warming, and each year the glacier shrunk more until it was no more.

They could no longer live there without fresh water, nor could the wild life, and thus the research station had to disband and move as well.

The melting of Antarctica will raise waters world-wide, submerging coastal plains, changing weather prompting extreme storms where none had existed, and wiping out species that can’t possible adapt in time.

Betsy said, “I see the changes and they have been dramatic in Antarctica. We cannot elude our responsibility any longer. We humans are affecting global warming.”

Chris Gunn, a naturalist and researcher, explained that most people don’t understand how critical are these life forms, the Krill and Plankton, are to the cycle of life.

Krill, as small as they are, constitute a critical building block in the chain that feeds the penguins, seals, whales and birds we observed, but this chain of life affects us all, even at a distance.

It’s not generally appreciated that nature is a system that we can compromise and have and that it won’t right itself unless we change our ways – assuming it’s not too late to correct the harm we’ve already caused.

When we left, we were exhilarated by the visit, but sad to be leaving this special place.

We had trophies to confirm that what had occurred was real; we had pictures, sent postcards, even a certificate attesting to our visit, all memorials of our adventure.

But it’s hard to think that an experience like this doesn’t change you forever in some way.

You have to take from this something that changes your perspective and gives you the impetus to find some way to protect this special place – even if it is to tell others what you’ve learned - because, in doing so, you protect not only this place but where you live and those you love as well.


Thursday, February 11, 2010

We've made the Drake Passage - but it was rougher going North

The Drake passage is unpredictable because of the weather.  Moments ago, the waves washed up against the window on the 5th deck where i'm sitting.  The waves are huge.  So we are passing up the opportunity to swim to Cape Horn.  We may return to Antarctica by plane - if the weather permits.  For the time being, I've made a sketch that captures something of what we experienced.


Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Stepping out while we cruise through the Drake passage.

We had a chance tonight to dress up and then watch a sunset at about 9:45 p.m.  The days here are long as they start at 4:45 am.  At least during the "summer."



The waves are 4.5 to 7 feet and so they are fairly moderate. We’ve heard some scraping of the ship. Maybe the wind or small growlers are rolling beneath the ship. Or maybe it’s a tyro pilot who doesn’t know the gears. We are pitching back and forth but I don’t know the list of the ship. Visibility is about as far as my car in the Leesburg parking lot to the Starbuck’s front door. When you’re walking, you wonder if your inner ear still works. I’m taking some seasick medicine as a precaution. It’s a patch you place behind your ear. It seems to make me calmer almost to the point of sleepiness. You have to take it before you might be seasick, and then it lasts three days. Watch this space – if I can stay awake to write what happens.



We awoke about 6am Antarctic time (two hours later than the East Coast) to observe Deception Island. It’s at South 63 degrees and .894 minutes latitude, and West 60 degrees, 17.56 minutes longitude.

It’s the kind of harbor you’d expect pirates of old to use. It’s shaped like a donut that the gods took a bite of so you could sail or be seized in the open area surrounded by the island.

It’s dark, the landscape is dark brown, adjacent to the ice cliffs, and seascape has resumed its neutral shades.

The cold persists, as you’d expect, but it seems more piercing. Other upper deck rail grabbers said the same about the cold in between taking underexposed photos. So maybe it’s not just me.

The sun is trying to burn through an overcast sky. It’s a dull circle of grayish white. But it all fits the venue.

This island is volcanic residue that may erupt again. It sits atop a caldera, a collapsed volcano. It last erupted in 1969 destroying the research facilities on the island. I’m told the volcanic activity heats the water and allows for swimming. But we’re passing up the opportunity for a hypothermic swim.

Of course, there are other things swimming in the waters nearby. We sighted the fluke of a humpback cow whale with her calf, at the sterm starboard. Then we saw another whale, a killer, an Orca, but only the fluke. Holly said, “Real whales eat krill.”

There were large bergs by this dark island, we’re told more than usual, and probably because of the high winds. I These may have been the largest we’ve seen.



When Sir Shackleton’s ship, the Endurance, began to break up, Shackleton drew a sketch of how his ship was being pushed in several unfortunate directions (see sketch above)(my hand copy). The sketch’s significance was that Shackleton thought the ship’s destruction was imminent.

Shackleton and his crew were trapped in the ice the whole Arctic winter long (March to October 1914-15) and, as the ice pack moved, and at great distances, about 900 miles across the Weddell sea, it took his ship and crew with it for a long ride.

The ship was immobile in an ice pack the whole time and the circumference of their movement on foot were the interlocking ice floes.

Several times, they saw breaks coming close to their ship. They tried to escape their icy prison by digging toward these breaks and they thought they would escape. But there was always some insurmountable obstacle.

The courage and heroism that is Shackleton is his persistence and imagination and ability to inspire others to believe their circumstance was not hopeless.

As for the ship, however, finally he had to write that “the [ice] pack within our range of vision was being subjected to enormous compression, such as might be caused by cyclonic winds, opposing ocean currents, or constriction in a channel of some description.”

Shackleton went on to describe “huge blocks of ice, weighing many tons, were lifted into the air and tossed aside as other masses rose beneath them.”

Today we have so many who wrongly think they can master nature or ignore the consequences of compromising the natural order.

At one of his darkest moments, when Shackleton anticipated he would lose his ship, and put his crew at risk, and that he had find a way to lead them to safety, he must have been anxious – he wrote, “We were helpless intruders in a strange world, our lives dependent upon the play of grim elementary forces that made a mock of our puny efforts.”


Tuesday, February 9, 2010


Holly and I are trying to wrangle a flight to King George Island to put our feet on land at an Arctic Research Station.  It's called Villa Las Estrellas Research Station.  The challenges are the weather that make any flight risky, even though the Chilean Air Force maintain a base there.  The name means Village of the Stars (pictured above).  It is a significant meteorological station and, if we get there, we'll get to see their working and living quarters and hike to nearby wildlife preserves and glaciers - up even closer than we've been.  We won't know until the last moment two days from now if this is a go.  But we're kind of excited at the opportunity.  JPF